Why is a bark mitzvah OK but a shrimp latke beyond the pale? That is, why did Food & Wine’s recent Hanukkah layout, with shellfish and crème fraiche and brisket-topped latkes, create a minifirestorm and yet, you’d have to look pretty hard to find a bad word regarding the (bizarre) tradition of putting a talis (prayer shawl) on a dog?
The obvious answer, of course, is that bark mitzvahs go all the way back to 1958 (who knew?), long before Twitter came along and provided a megaphone for our every pearl of outrage. Bark mitzvahs are now practically torah min hashamayim (Torah received directly from heaven) in a country where dogs aren’t just members of the family, they’re often viewed as better, and purer, than our human children.
Reactions to the latke layout (mostly) fell along a counterintuitive fault line: Those who don’t keep kosher were outraged by what was perceived as the thoughtless appropriation of a powerful Jewish symbol. Folks who actually keep kosher were unbothered, JTA opinions editor Laura Adkins among them. Adkins made the perfectly logical argument that in a country where the vast majority of Jews do not keep kosher, treyf-topped latkes are as much a part of our yerushe (inheritance) as anything else. Not to mention that even the simplest latke, topped only with a kiss of sour cream, is still not kosher if, say, cooked on the same grill as your hamburger. Kosher isn’t just a list of ingredients, it’s an all-encompassing way of life.
And yet, we lose a lot of nuance by separating Jews into a blunt binary of kosher-keeping and non. I dare say a large part of non-kosher-keeping American Jews still invest an enormous amount of meaning into the “purity” of certain symbolic foods, as well as the maintenance of boundaries around what is and is not sufficiently kosher style. For those folks, the treyf latkes violated an important taboo, one that speaks to history and identity, a system of belonging that, in its own way, is just as powerful as the laws of kashrus.
I get it. I grew up in a home with very few substantial examples of Jewish foodways, some of which I’ve discussed here before. As so many tangible, edible connections to the past fall away, whatever remains has to carry not just its own meaning, but the signification of an entire food culture. We’re not talking about just one latke, we’re talking about a load-bearing pillar for am yisroel (the people Israel).
When it comes to latkes, though, having traveled to Poland, and especially Lithuania, forced me to see the miraculous Yiddish latke as just another carb-heavy foodstuff shared with our non-Jewish neighbors. When I stayed in Vilnius in 2008 for the summer Yiddish intensive program, I was initially put off by the fact that the truly outstanding local potato pancakes were so often paired with a Vilnius delicacy, roasted pig ear. I never did try the pig ear, but I did get over my illusions regarding the intrinsic Jewishness of most of what I think of as Jewish food. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Most Jewish food isn’t Jewish because of what it is, but the purposes we put it to.
I had another one of those moments recently as I was preparing to lead a class in reading a Khanike-themed chapter of Bella Chagall’s wonderful Yiddish memoir, Brenendike Likht (Burning Lights). Comparing the Yiddish to the (excellent) English translation by Norbert Guterman, I noted only one clunker: Guterman translated dreydl as “teetotum.” TEETOTUM. This wasn’t just my own personal shrimp-topped latke, it had a Hanukkah ham on top. In what universe was this memoir of a Jewish childhood in Vitebsk being marketed to people who knew what a teetotum was but not a dreydl?
Still savoring my outrage, I figured I ought to look up “teetotum,” just in case someone in my class asked about it. Turns out, teetotum is an English word going back to at least the 18th century, referring to a four-sided spinning top, with a letter inscribed on each side. A teetotum might, for example, carry the letters A, D, N, and T, standing for the Latin words aufer (take), depone (put down), nihil (nothing), and totum (all), from which the toy gets its name: a T-shaped top with which you bet on a stake or totum. Teetotum started to sound a lot like the dreydl’s nun (nisht or nothing), hey (halb or half), shin (shtel or put down), and gimel (gants or take all).
In fact, in the story, Chagall uses a synonym for the dreydl game I had never encountered: gor (all). But of course, gor, meaning the gambling pot, maps perfectly onto totum (all). While “a great miracle” may have happened there, modern claims that the letters on the dreydl “stand for” nes gadol haya sham are a nice bit of retconning on the part of modern Jews working to relocate the center of Jewish life to the modern state of Israel.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t something intrinsically Jewish about playing dreydl, it’s just not quite what you think it is.
The chapter of Chagall’s memoir in which the dreydl appears, “The Fifth Light,” is about much more than a game of dreydl. The story opens in the very cozy, very Yiddish space of the kitchen, as the family’s maid makes enough latkes for eight children. As we leave the kitchen, though, the gambling games begin. The action unfolds from little Bella’s point of view, as the youngest child, and only girl. The boys get more and more heated as they go from a kind of lotto-bingo game to dreydl and then to playing cards. What began as a heymish, peaceful scene degenerates into an all-out brawl, with the brothers scrapping on the floor like animals, at which point the father breaks up the party and everyone goes to bed.
As I pointed out last year, gambling was strongly discouraged in traditional Eastern European Jewish spaces. You can find moralizing against gambling everywhere in Yiddish literature, and Chagall’s memoir is a good example of the genre. Khanike was a once-a-year moment when restrictions on gambling were loosened due to the festive atmosphere and lack of religious obligations. Or, perhaps, in the Bakhtinian sense, Khanike was a carnival-like release valve, in which Jews could indulge in what was otherwise repressed the rest of the year. Rather than being “just” a Yiddish translation of the teetotum, the dreydl was a Jewish mediator between two sets of cultural values. Clothed in Hebrew letters, it legitimized the otherwise forbidden act of gambling, at least temporarily, domesticating it and bringing it inside the kosher Jewish home, making sure the player never forgot who he, or she was. As miracles go, it’s not a great one, but it’s something.
ALSO: The Library at Columbia has just published an online version of its exhibit last year on Yiddish at Columbia. Included in the exhibit is an early Yiddish grammar by Johannes Buxtorf, which, if you’ll recall from my column on non-Jews in Yiddish, was one of the first academic books on Yiddish, written as a way for German humanists to understand more about Yiddish … Director of the Yiddish Book Center Yiddish Language Institute, Asya Schulman, will be teaching a beginner’s Yiddish class at Yiddish New York using her brand new textbook, so you can get a head start on your New Year’s resolution to learn Yiddish … Brazil’s Nicole Borger joins up with Shane Baker for a night of comedy and song inspired by Sholem Aleichem, Jan. 16 at 8 p.m., 346 West 72nd St., New York … Jan. 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Museum of Jewish Heritage will host a “concert celebrating the resilience of Jewish music and culture.” … The first two Yiddish Open Mic Cafes in London will be on Sunday, Jan. 19, and Saturday, Feb. 15, at various locations. Inquiries at [email protected] … If you don’t hear anything about the New York Klezmer Series, don’t worry. They will be dark during January and return on Feb. 6 at the Town and Village Synagogue, 334 East 14th St. … I’m super excited to see that the date for the next Ashkenaz festival has been announced as Sept. 1-7 at Toronto’s Harbourfront complex. If you’ve never been, it’s an incomparable week of global Jewish culture, and this is the 25th anniversary year, so expect some special programming.
A SPECIAL PLEA: Many of the events I list here take place at well-known New York venues, like the Center for Jewish History, the New York Public Library, and Carnegie Hall. There’s an equally important, but less well known, venue that shows up a lot, too, called the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center. Also known as folk shule eyn-un-tsvansik (School 21), it’s like Carnegie Hall, if Carnegie Hall was a squat brick cube in the Bronx, and its one performance stage was located downstairs from a dialysis center. At one time, the Sholem Aleichem folk shule was a daily afterschool Yiddish program that took up the entire building; No. 21 was just one part of a thriving school system. Today, the social hall in the basement still buzzes with activity, hosting weekly Yiddish groups and monthly Yiddish language lectures. In fact, pound for pound, when it comes to Yiddish language programming, eyn-un-tsvansik may possibly have YIVO beat. (Sorry!) All of this is to say, that squat brick treasure has a leaky roof in desperate need of fixing and roof fixing isn’t cheap. The leaders of the Sholem Aleichem Center are asking that you contribute to their campaign to make those repairs possible. A groysn dank in faroys! (Many thanks in advance!)
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Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.